Baseball saves the day. Again.

I am now in Week 4 at my new job, continuing to cold call businesses to pitch my firm’s service.  I was on the phone yesterday with a spa owner in Eureka Springs, Arkansas when a thought occurred to me.

Arkansas has long been famous for its natural hot springs, and baseball teams used to flock there for spring training, along with mobsters like Al Capone.  Babe Ruth ended a holdout one winter while at the baths with sportswriter Dan Daniel.  Daniel recounted years later in the memoir, No Cheering in the Press Box, about how he helped broker the deal between Ruth and Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert.  It was pointed out to Ruth that he made more than the U.S. president at the time, Herbert Hoover. “What the hell has Hoover got to do with it?” Ruth reputedly quipped. “Besides, I had a better year than he did.”

Anyhow, I was on the phone yesterday with this spa owner, a woman named Nicole, when it occurred to me to ask if Ruth had ever frequented her business.  As I’ve mentioned here before, I have this uncanny tendency to connect everything to sports.  There was Rick Burleson, the architect I called a few weeks ago who has the same name as a former All-Star shortstop.  One of my clients also has the same surname of a former Sacramento Kings backup (though she’s no relation, I checked.)  As for the spa owner, her business is also located inside a hotel that’s been around since the 19th Century so it made sense that Ruth may have come through at one point.  She wasn’t sure, though.  I told her I would do a quick Google search.

This picture turned up and I sent it to Nicole.  She signed up for a trial account of my firm’s service this morning.

Know your Giants

I went camping recently in Northern California with a group of friends.  While on the trip, one of the girls told me she was a big San Francisco Giants fan.  I smiled.  I like women who can drive stick, shoot pool, and watch baseball.  I would like nothing more than to find a girl to take to ATT Park and eat peanuts with.  The shells would gather at our feet as we took in the game, our bond cementing.

I digress.

I asked the woman if she was a fan of Will Clark, Matt Williams, Kevin Mitchell.  Alas, she had no clue.  I think she’d maybe heard of Barry Bonds.  Jeff Kent?  I’m guessing no.  This of course says nothing of the current crop of superstars. I’ll cut the woman some slack, as there were plenty of Angels fans back in 2002 who were unfamiliar with David Eckstein (those Rally Monkeys were cute, granted.)

Still, a true Giants fan knows a little history.  The names of Clark, Williams, and Mitchell are only the beginning.  The true fan also knows Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, and Bill Terry, who once said of the Dodgers, “Is Brooklyn still in the league?”  There’s also John McGraw, the famed manager of the Giants, back when they were in New York, in the early part of the 20th Century.  McGraw introduced sign language to the game  to communicate with his deaf pitcher, Dummy Taylor.  He also once had his team dress in all-black uniforms for a World Series to make them look more intimidating (it worked.)  Earlier, following the 1904 season, he refused to face the Philadelphia Athletics of the three-year-old American League and hoisted a banner, declaring his team world champions.  They don’t make them like McGraw anymore.

I go as far back as Buck Ewing, who was a catcher for the Giants back in the 1880s and ’90s.  Ewing once yelled to a group of fans during a game that it was getting late, time for dinner.  He then stole home and won the game.

Damnit, I want to be on ESPN

So it used to be I had a nice, quiet, little blog, where I could write odes to baseball, offering cute anecdotes and historical references.  No one paid all that much attention, but I accepted it as the norm for a new sports blog.  I mainly wanted the chance to write about sports, moreover baseball, on a regular basis and my blog granted that.

Until yesterday, that is.

Sports blogging is back on the national radar.  I suppose it was inevitable, though I didn’t figure it would come at the hands of Raul Ibanez.  To those out of the loop, one of the bloggers whose stuff gets reprinted here wrote a post a couple of days ago exploring the possibility that the aging Philadephia Phillies slugger may be on steroids, due to his freakish start this year (at 37, he’s currently on pace for 57 home runs, after never managing more than 33 in a season.)  It seemed fair enough to consider, for probably 10 different reasons at least, though the national media blew a gasket.

First the story spread around the blogosphere.  Then came a column from John Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Inquirer who quoted Ibanez saying, “You can have my urine, my hair, my blood, my stool—anything you can test. I’ll give you back every dime I’ve ever made if the test is positive.”  (Sammy Sosa also had an impassioned response when Rick Reilly challenged him to take a test back in 2002, as recounted here. To highlight: “This interview is over.  Over motherfucker!”)

By yesterday afternoon, the blogger, Jerod Morris, was appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, along with Gonzalez and Ken Rosenthal of The Sporting News.  I watched the segment yesterday evening through a link from the homepage, which had an in-depth story about the article.  Rosenthal and Gonzalez acted more like they were on Bill O’Reilly, ripping into Morris for not protecting Ibanez’s reputation.  It’s the same kind of crap the media said a decade ago after an Associated Press reporter wrote a story about finding androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker.  It’s embarrassing that we’re still at this level.

For Morris’s part, I thought he held his own.  He looked a little nervous at times, with what looked like “Richard Nixon at the 1960 Presidential Debates” stage makeup.  Hey, I sweat too.  But I’m sure Morris would have more polish if he was on the air as much as sports journalists seem to go on these days (ratings be damned.)  And Morris stuck to his guns, not resorting to the condescencion or personal attacks of his counterparts.

Good job man.  We’re all proud of you.  Envious too.

Oh, you’re not that Rick Burleson?

I recently started a new day job in Berkeley, California.  Unfortunately, I can’t make all my money as a baseball blogger/historian.  Thus, I pay the bills doing sales work and have recently begun a position as an account executive for an Internet start-up in the East Bay.  In a given day, I’ll cold call upwards of 50-60 businesses, pitching review services, and I get to talk with some interesting characters.   Occasionally, they have names I recognize.

One of my quirks, dating back to childhood, is that I have an encyclopedic brain.  Some people probably use this to become ace scientists or attorneys.  I simply clean up every time I go to bar trivia, pulling out the names of hit movies and politicians like I was a walking Wikipedia.  My knowledge base unfortunately doesn’t extend to much that has practical use, though I like to put on my resume that I know most World Series winners and the names of all the U.S. presidents from the 20th century– backwards.  If I ever figure out how to make money off this, I’ll be set for life.

I bring this all up because I recently called on an architect named Rick Burleson.  Some may know that there was also once a baseball player named Rick Burleson, who played shortstop for the Boston Red Sox and California Angels in the 1970s and ’80s.  I brought this up in my initial call with the architect and he laughed, telling me had Burleson’s baseball card.  We set up a follow-up call for this morning and to prepare, I did some research on-line on Burleson the Ballplayer, learning he’d been a four-time All Star and had finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 1974.  He even placed 13th in Most Valuable Player voting in 1975, when he hit only .252 at the plate.  His nickname was Rooster.

Unfortunately, Burleson the Architect didn’t have much time to talk when I reach him today.  I’ll be sure to tell him about how he once got traded for Carney Lansford when I next call.

A bar I used to drink in

When I was a kid, growing up in Sacramento, I used to often visit a baseball card shop downtown.  It was two doors over from a building whose sign was a large, glowing baseball with the words, “Joe Marty’s” emblazoned over it.  I used to wonder what the place was.  As a baseball card junkie (I had a few thousand cards at one point), the ball caught my eye and as a kid, I once went in, thinking it maybe was a card shop.  The swaying drunks I encountered let me know otherwise.  Joe Marty’s was a bar.

Eventually, I learned Joe Marty had, in fact, been a real person, a ballplayer at that.  My senior year of high school, I did my final project on an old Pacific Coast League team that had played in my hometown, the Sacramento Solons.  As it turned out, Marty played for and managed the Solons back in the 1940s and ’50s.  Before that, he played in the major leagues, appearing with the Chicago Cubs in the 1938 World Series.  Injuries robbed him of a long big league career, though as a young man, he was once considered a better prospect than Joe DiMaggio.  The two came up together in the PCL with the San Francisco Seals and while DiMaggio missed the 1934 season with a career-threatening injury, Marty went to the Cubs for a large price.  In the end, though, as one old-timer told me, Marty returned to Sacramento, his hometown, and became his bar’s own best customer.  He died in 1984 at the age of 71.

Eventually, I drank in Joe Marty’s bar once or twice.  It had the coolest old black-and-white photos of famous players.  Sadly, fire gutted the place in 2005.  While the photos were reportedly saved from destruction, the bar hasn’t been open since.

Before they were famous: Garrett Olson

I started covering baseball my sophomore year of college at Cal Poly and the first series I attended, a freshman southpaw making his debut drew my attention.  Pitching long relief against Loyola Marymount, the hurler was a bright spot in an otherwise forgettable game.  Before long, he earned a spot in the starting rotation and eventually, he became a compensatory first-round major league draft pick following his junior season.

The pitcher’s name?  Garrett Olson.

Now don’t get me wrong, my alma mater is no USC or LSU, producing assembly lines of pro athletes.  But every so often, Cal Poly has sent someone to the pros, from former All Star baseball players Ozzie Smith and Mike Krukow to current Philadelphia Eagles starting linebacker Chris Gocong.   Olson is one of the more recent Cal Poly alums to reach the ranks.

He’s no All Star yet, already on his third team in three years, having gone from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs (for whom he never played) to the Seattle Mariners.  Still, he’s showing signs of improvement.  Olson’s earned run average has gone from a “Horrific, don’t tell anyone” 7.79 in his rookie year to a “We’ll just keep this between you and me” 6.65 last season to an “Almost there, buddy” 4.68 in the current campaign.  He started the season in Triple-A Tacoma but has forged his way into the Mariners’ starting rotation, going five innings against the Angels in a loss on Sunday (he got lit up.)  I hope he stays.

My vested interest is that I knew Olson before he was famous.  Besides covering him in the home series against LMU, I wrote a feature on Olson later that year.  He struck me as a nice, shy kid as we sat outside his red brick engineering dorm, talking about how he’d trained with a former pro pitcher growing up in Fresno.  I spoke to his catcher and one of his coaches, who both raved about him.  “He’s the same if he surrenders a three-run bomb or strikes out the side,” the catcher told me in essence.  The coach likened Olson, with his pinpoint control, to another major league pitcher he’d coached in college, former Orioles pitcher Matt Riley.

Early on, talk like this is cheap.  Every athlete seems to think they’re a solid prospect and their agents are even worse bullshitters.  But Olson legitimized the hype, at least by the end of his time at Cal Poly.  His final season, I watched him against visiting top dog Cal State Fullerton, dueling with another potential first round pick that year, Ricky Romero, who now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays.  Former major leaguers Carney Lansford and Robin Ventura were both onhand at Baggett Stadium that night and both gave me their approval about the pitchers.

Olson still has a long way to go before he’s entrenched as a major leaguer.  I’ll be watching, though.

Ballplayers I have interviewed

I majored in journalism in college at Cal Poly, with an unofficial focus on sportswriting, and between my time on the campus paper and freelancing and interning for various publications, I got to talk to some pretty cool people. The following are baseball players I have interviewed:

Ozzie Smith: My first big interview, done my sophomore year at Cal Poly. Smith gave the morning and afternoon commencement speeches at graduation that year, as an alum of the university. I met Smith the day before graduation, when a statue of him was unveiled at the baseball field. I had researched Smith in the preceding weeks and learned he had mentioned his Cal Poly coach, Berdy Harr, in his Hall of Fame induction speech. As Harr died in 1987, I rhetorically asked Smith who he would have if he could have anyone at the statue ceremony. He almost teared up answering Harr. The following day, he gave two lovely commencement addresses and the outgoing student body president did a back flip in his honor.

Dom DiMaggio: I’ve recounted the story of this interview before, but to recap, I got to interview the Boston Red Sox great at the start of my senior year of college.

Nick Swisher: I interned for the Davis Enterprise in the summer of 2004 and part of my duties included covering the Triple A team for the Oakland Athletics, the Sacramento River Cats. Their best player that year was a jovial outfielder from West Virginia on the fast track to the majors, Swisher. I don’t know if I ever actually used a Swisher quote in print but I talked to him at least once or twice and the guy was pretty funny, always quick with a lighthearted quip.

Hideo Nomo: Another guy I interviewed for the Enterprise, Nomo came to Sacramento toward the end of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers for an injury rehab start. Nomo only went a couple innings and needed an interpreter afterward to talk to reporters. He didn’t have much to say even in Japanese and the most interesting thing about this interview was the gaggle of Japanese media that was on-hand exclusively for Nomo and departed right after he was done.

Rollie Fingers: I also freelanced for the Enterprise in 2005 and got to interview the former A’s closer that summer, after he made a promotional appearance. I appreciate him giving me time and his handlebar moustache was cool, but Fingers seemed somewhat aloof, saying he had never heard of Huston Street who had just broken one of his records.

Jose Canseco: My most recent professional clip, I interviewed Canseco in April 2008, when he came to Oakland for a booksigning. I was worried I’d get blown off by the former Bash Brother, who has come across as something of a jerk over the years, but Canseco was surprisingly polite to me, answering all my questions (though he did mention in jest that I could take a bullet for him.) With that said, I asked a bunch of softball questions and wrote a pedestrian story. Thereafter, I kept reading shit about Canseco elsewhere that I’d missed: He was writing a book on cloning; his house was getting foreclosed; he was going to take part in a mixed martial arts fight; he thought he was addicted to steroids; he regretted writing his tell-all bestseller, Juiced. This was a good learning experience, I suppose. On a side note, Canseco is freaking huge in person.

(UPDATE: I remembered a couple more of these.)

Willie McGee: Technically, I didn’t interview McGee, but it’s worth a mention anyway.  The uncle, by marriage, of a former Cal Poly point guard named Kameron Gray, the St. Louis Cardinal great showed up at a Cal Poly game my junior year of college.  McGee didn’t agree to my interview request, saying something to the effect that he was just there for his nephew.  He had the droopiest eyes.

Carney Lansford/Robin Ventura: I group these guys together because I interviewed them at the same Cal Poly-Cal State Fullerton baseball game my senior year of college.  Lansford was at the game because his son Josh was playing third base for Cal Poly at the time.  In Ventura’s case, he grew up in the area, attending Righetti High in Arroyo Grande.  Both players graciously let me interview them during the game, though I had to fight back the urge not to ask Ventura about his infamous 1993 fight with Nolan Ryan.

The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame

1. Pete Rose: No surprise here. The all-time hits leader is easily the most-talented (and charismatic) player who doesn’t have a plaque hanging in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. Rose was banned from baseball in 1989 for sports betting, a shame, considering racists like Ty Cobb and Cap Anson are in Cooperstown.

2. Joe Jackson: Babe Ruth is said to have modeled his swing off “Shoeless Joe,” who owns the third best batting average all-time, .356. Alas, the Chicago White Sox great was also banned for gambling, in the wake of the infamous 1919 World Series that he helped fix.


3. Dom DiMaggio: Ted Williams had a pamphlet in his museum about why DiMaggio should be in the Hall of Fame. The Boston Red Sox centerfielder was a seven-time All Star, renowned for his defense. The knock was that he had a relatively short career. Then again, so did Sandy Koufax.

4. Dave Parker: This guy’s a Veteran’s Committee pick waiting to happen. If Jim Rice and Orlando Cepeda can get into the Hall, Parker should too. He had better career numbers than those players for hits, doubles, runs batted in, runs scored, and stolen bases. However, just like Cepeda delayed his Cooperstown bid by going to prison for drug trafficking, Parker likely hurt his chances with well-publicized cocaine abuse.

5. Bert Blyleven: The poor man’s Nolan Ryan, Blyleven had 3701 strikeouts and 287 wins over the course of his career. Much like Ryan, though, Blyleven also lost a lot of games, 250 overall to Ryan’s 292. Still, he probably has the best credentials of any pitcher not in Cooperstown.

6. Hal Chase: Yet another great player banned for gambling, Chase made a name for himself with outstanding defense at first base in the early part of the 20th century. However, he was so shameless in his association with gamblers, Ken Burns’ Baseball noted, that fans took to chanting, “What’s the odds, Hal?” when he played.

7. Stan Hack: A solid Chicago Cubs third baseman from the 1930s and ’40s, this Sacramento native had 2193 lifetime hits and a .301 lifetime average.

8. Ron Santo: Much like Hack, Santo was a good Cubs third baseman who may get into the Hall before too long through the Veteran’s Committee.

9. Dale Murphy: If character counts, Murphy should have been a first-ballot inductee. The Atlanta Braves outfielder and devout Mormon deserves a spot on the All-Time Nice Guy squad, being a throw-back player who never drank and instead did things like answer children’s questions in a regular newspaper column. He also hit 398 home runs and won back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards.

10. Dwight Gooden: Were it not for cocaine addiction derailing his career, this New York Mets phenom would have been on the inside track to Cooperstown. As it stands, his 194 victories are better than Hall of Fame hurlers Dizzy Dean and Koufax and all three pitchers had primes that lasted for similar, brief lengths.


Also check out the Tuesday feature, Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?

My interview with Dom DiMaggio

A few days ago, I alluded on here to an interview I did with Dom DiMaggio, calling it a story for another time. As fate would have it, the former Boston Red Sox center fielder and seven-time All Star died early yesterday morning at 92. Thus, I will now tell of the time I sought him out.

As I mentioned before, I did a research paper my junior year of college on the significant number of Italian-American baseball players from the San Francisco Bay Area. After turning my paper in, I spent several months trying to expand it into a magazine piece. Though I never ultimately submitted it for publication, I did a lot of research, making trips to the city and interviewing former major leaguers like Gino Cimoli, who had the first at-bat on the West Coast in 1958. Eventually, my research brought me to a place called Dom’s Dugout.

I had read in The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer, that Joe DiMaggio once had a restaurant on the Embarcadero. On one of my trips to the city, in 2004, I ventured in search of it, near Pier 39, and found that the restaurant no longer existed. The top floor of its building had been converted into a different restaurant, and on the bottom, there now sat a memorabilla store– Dom’s Dugout. I learned it was owned by the former player– a savvy businessman in his own right– and that he occasionally made trips from the East Coast to check on his investment. At some point, I learned he would likely be visiting in September of that year.

Thus, I eventually found myself back in the store on a fall day, with a living legend sitting at a card table in front of me. At first, he was hesitant to give me any time, which made sense. His older brother Joe was famously reclusive, almost suing Simon & Garfunkel after they referenced him in their song “Mrs. Robinson,” and neither DiMaggio agreed to be interviewed for The Hero’s Life. Nevertheless, Dom acquiesced for me and allowed my request for ten minutes.

Somehow ten minutes became two hours of sitting with him while he signed autographs for customers and chatted with them. I’ve interviewed a number of ballplayers and I must say that next to Ozzie Smith, DiMaggio may have been the kindest. He autographed tirelessly, talked with fans about his life experiences and even called one guy’s son up via cell phone, after the man said it would make his day. DiMaggio also was nice to me. Diminutive and bespectacled and still lucid, he graciously answered my questions.

It’s been almost five years now, and I’ve always felt guilty for never writing of my experience, though it’s nice to relate it now.

On a final note, decades before, when the building was the DiMaggio family restaurant, it had a famous patron. Detroit Tigers great Ty Cobb helped Joe DiMaggio negotiate one of his early contracts with the New York Yankees, advising him on how to successfully hold out for more money, and as a thank you for this service, Cobb got to eat free for life at the restaurant. For all I know, Dom DiMaggio and I sat in the same spot where Cobb once dined.

(Postscript: For anyone who’d like to read more about Dom DiMaggio, Sports Illustrated published this nice story on him in 2001.)

My top five baseball books

Anyone who reads this space consistently will find that I make a lot of references to baseball books in my writing. Most of these are in fact books that I own. I’m proud to say I have a pretty decent personal baseball library that I’ve been accumulating since childhood. For whatever reason, baseball is a sport that lends itself to wonderful, poetic writing (along with boxing and horse racing I’ve heard) and today, I offer five essentials, the five baseball books I’d want to bring to a desert island were I ever stranded there:

1. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn

This is actually the latest book that I’m reading, and I’m only about 100 pages in, though already it’s wonderful. Kahn offers an autobiographical look at the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, drawn from his days as a young beat writer for that team. Lots of former players are interviewed, including Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider.

2. Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam

This takes somewhat of a similar approach to Boys of Summer, with lots of interviews of former players, though this time, it’s the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees of the 1949 pennant race who are chronicled. A Harvard graduate and former Vietnam correspondent, Halberstam offered a book full of depth and insight. He ends with a nice quote from Ted Williams, though on an interesting side note, Joe DiMaggio refused to participate in the book.

3. The Glory of their Times, by Lawrence Ritter

Possibly the very best baseball book out there. The book is an oral history of the early days of baseball, comprised of interviews with about 20 ballplayers whose careers spanned the beginning to middle of the 20th century. One of those books that also provided a public service, it’s no surprise that the original tapes Ritter made interviewing the players are now in the Hall of Fame. In fact, a number of the players profiled here later were inducted into the Hall, possibly because the book brought awareness to their careers. Ritter later wrote another great book, The Lost Ballparks, about demolished fields.

4. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton

This one broke ground when it came out. A diary of the 1969 season by Bouton, an acerbic relief pitcher, the book exposed players as drunks, amphetamine users and philanderers. Though comparatively tame today, the book violated the unwritten code of clubhouse privacy and shook baseball. The San Diego Padres burned a copy of the book before a game, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a meeting with Bouton in an attempt to coerce a retraction, and Pete Rose taunted “Fuck you Shakespeare” from his dugout. Incidentally, the book is also funny, intelligent and just vulgar enough to be charming.

5. Baseball, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward

This was released in conjunction with Burns’ epic 1994 documentary of the same name and is basically a written account of what aired on PBS. Filled with pictures, oral histories, essays and anecdotes, this is probably the finest chronicle of baseball history among the several that I own. I hope Burns offers an updated version at some point.

I could recommend a whole slew of other titles, though I’ll keep this short today.